Hazard the hero

Hazard the hero

22 December 2020

DOWNPATRICK goalkeeper Conor Hazard is targeting more silverware with Glasgow Celtic after his penalty shoot-out heroics helped the Hoops clinch the Scottish Cup on Sunday.

The 22-year old saved two spot-kicks against Championship side Hearts as the nine-in-a-row Scottish champions clinched an historic quadruple treble. The enthralling cup tie ended 2-2 after 90 minutes with the sides locked at 3-3 after extra-time at Hampden Park.

Hazard, who was recently handed the number one jersey by Hoops boss Neil Lennon, made both his European and Scottish Premiership debuts and retained the starting jersey for Sunday’s final.

The stopper —  who has also forced his way into the Northern Ireland international squad — was delighted to play a major part in his side’s cup final victory.

And while his current contract expires in the summer which allows him to negotiate with other clubs in January, should he favour a move away from Celtic Park, leaving the club he has supported since he was a boy is the last thing on his mind.

Conor described Sunday’s cup final as “crazy day” for him and his family who watched the match at home.

“Three weeks ago, I would never have been able to picture what happened there on that pitch,” he said moments after his penalty shoot-out heroics.

“I am just absolutely over the moon. I’ve been a Celtic fan my whole life and to get this opportunity, well I am just delighted,” he said.

“To play for such a worldwide club, we know what the fans expect and how much they drive us towards winning. It is an honour to play for them. I want to fully focus on each match, playing week in, week out here at Celtic, and hopefully it will come together.”

Conor said the final was a “momentous day” for him and his family, explaining that his ‘phone hasn’t stopped ringing.

Conor grew up in Downpatrick and developed his skills in the Celtic academy, travelling across to Scotland for games from a young age. 

“The club means everything to me,” he said. “We used to get up at 5am to get on the boat to go to matches and we wouldn’t be home until three the next morning. It’s something I always dreamed of growing up.”

Conor has spent several spells out on loan in recent years in order to build-up his first team experience, readying him for a career between the sticks for Celtic.

He got his chance to impress against Lille and Kilmarnock r as Celtic’s form hit a rocky patch, but being selected by Lennon for the win over Hearts at Hampden Park was a huge confidence boost.

“I have to thank all of the staff and the manager for putting trust in me,” said Conor. 

“It was a huge honour in such a big game. Thankfully, I was able to repay that trust with the two penalty saves. I have put a lot of work in and gone on loan spells waiting for my chance. The coaches have helped me a lot throughout the club.”

Sunday’s cup win clinched the domestic treble for Celtic for the fourth successive campaign, something that has never before been achieved. It is also the 40th time Celtic have been crowned Scottish Cup winners, with the Downpatrick man admitting the team has a lot of work to do to try and achieve its aims and targets this year.

“The final was only my third game for the club, so I’m taking each day as it comes. As a team and as a group, this win could be a major factor in turning things round,” he added.

Conor’s family watched his cup final heroics at home in Downpatrick as fans were not allowed to attend the match due to coronavirus restrictions. However, they were over the moon with his achievements. 

“I don’t think I have any fingernails left after that,” laughed his beaming dad Gary. “We didn’t know up until the last minute if he would get the nod to play or not. We knew he did well in the European game and certainly made a case for himself. He only found out on Thursday from Lennon that he would be playing.”

Whilst there was undoubted pride from his dad, Gary said Conor has deserved his break due to how hard he has worked. 

“He has put so much time into Celtic over the years and done all the right things. All the close family are so proud of him, his mum Pauline, his younger brother Jack. He was superb. 

“Conor very much wants to be able to go on and make himself number one for Celtic. He is only 22 and this was just his third appearance, so he’s been doing well.  He had a loan spell at Dundee and did very well there and that has put him in good stead.”

Gary said Conor has also been drawing high praise from his Northern Ireland manager Ian Barraclough after breaking through for the senior team too. 

“Barraclough has spoken really highly of Conor. He did very well for him when he was the manager at under-age level and the boss knows what he can do in training,” he said.

Conor’s family are no strangers to sporting success either.  Younger brother Jack has played Irish League football as a goalkeeper, but has more recently focused his attentions on Gaelic Games, putting in some super displays for the Down Gaelic football under-21 side.